Invest in kids, period

Sometimes, I feel as if I’m banging the drum slowly. What better use of public money is there than spending bucks on early childhood education? After all, the evidence is plastered on the faces of every citizen in this democracy of ours.

New Brunswick is doing its level best to reconcile education with cost. Still, policy makers here have not yet recognized that the price drops later when the investment arrives earlier.

Here’s what a recent Conference Board of Canada report says, according to the nation’s public broadcaster:

“Canada is lagging the world in spending on early childhood education – and it’s going to cost the economy in the long run, a new report from the Conference Board of Canada suggests.

“In a paper published (late last month), the think-tank argues that for every dollar spent on early childhood education programs, the economy gets about $6 worth of economic benefits down the line. Not only do such programs give kids a head start, but they free up parents to work and increase the family’s income, too. ‘The science is unquestioning,’ said Craig Alexander, the group’s chief economist and one of the authors of the report. ‘There’s clear evidence that kids develop better and stronger essential skills,’ he said, ‘and we can basically show that this does act to reduce income inequality.’”

Empathy, that linchpin of the bonds that keep society from running off the rails, has taken a beating over the past few years. One needn’t spend much time scrutinizing the headlines for evidence of spreading spiritual unease.

We saw it in the financial meltdown of 2008, and in the subsequent, public-sector fiscal crises that afflicted the world’s leading economies. We saw it in cutbacks to social services and poverty reduction programs. We saw it in our communities, on our streets and, perhaps, even in ourselves.

“What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic,” blared a headline in Scientific American in 2011. “Empathy is a cornerstone of human behavior and has long been considered innate,” the article began. “A forthcoming study, however, challenges this assumption by demonstrating that empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years. The research found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.”

Does this sound oddly familiar at this time in the recent history of western civilization?

“The ability to see the world through the eyes of others is an economic imperative,” Todd Hirsch, a Calgary economist wrote in the Globe and Mail two summers ago. “If empathy were given the attention it deserves, companies would find new ways to please their customers. Innovators would dream up systems that save time and money. Conflicts would be resolved more easily. And maybe – just maybe – engineers would design products that are simple to use.”

But if empathy is such an important social, economic and technological enabler in productive adults, it is a quality that’s best and most easily acquired early in life, when the mind is young and supple.

In fact, one of the tenets of comprehensive, play-oriented early childhood education is teaching empathy to preschoolers: Putting oneself in another person’s shoes; coping with strong emotions; understanding and respecting different points of view, needs and desires. All are essential lessons to learn in a safe, positive, nurturing environment.

We become what we learn in this province. Let’s make that lesson endure.

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